NASHVILLE -- Gov. Phil Bredesen is a walking, talking microprocessor: feed him information, hell process it and give you a solution. Thats the impression the Harvard-educated physics major and successful businessman gave Tuesday during his first Cabinet meeting.
After eight years of Don Sundquist, who gamely tried to pass an income tax in his turbulent last two years in office, Bredesen and his new team are a breath of fresh air.
In fact, theyre so fresh that Bredesen turned to his chief lobbyist to explain some simple facts of legislative life.
Lawmakers come to Nashville on Mondays for a 5 p.m. session. They gather in committee meetings on Tuesdays.
On Wednesdays, legislators hold committees throughout the morning and hold floor sessions in the afternoon.
For at least the first couple of months, lawmakers head for the hills after 9 a.m. floor sessions, Anna Windrow told Bredesens Cabinet.
Of course, this was not news to some in the Cabinet. Agriculture Commissioner Ken Givens and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber left the Legislature just two months ago, knowing they likely could not win re-election after supporting an income tax.
Finance Commissioner Dave Goetz and Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Jim Neeley have been around. Goetz is a former business trade association lobbyist and radio and television reporter who covered Capitol Hill. Neeley was labor commissioner for Gov. Ray Blanton, 1975-79, in one of the most forgettable administrations in Tennessee history.
But for most of the remaining 17 Cabinet members, Tuesdays meeting was the first step in their on-the-job training.
For his part, Bredesen is rearing to go.
In a way, its kind of invigorating, he said.
Bredesen said hes ready to tackle Tennessees worst problems, a budget shortfall and the yawning TennCare monster that needs at least $259 million more this budget year and about twice that amount for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
Cabinet members are working on their budget requests for the new fiscal year. Bredesen warned them they cannot expect more money than their departments received this year. And, he instructed them to come up with ways to cut spending by 2.5 percent and 5 percent.
In addition to the TennCare expenses, the state has to come up with $45 million to cover increases in state employee health care premiums. In the frantic final days of last years legislative session -- it happened in the previous two years as well -- legislators and Sundquist failed to appropriate the money.
That wont happen on his watch, Bredesen said.
I dont want to wait until 11:59 to deal with problems that must be settled before lawmakers go home for the year, he said. This $45 million health care problem has that flavor.
How about an ethics policy? Bredesen and his legal counsel, respected Nashville lawyer Bob Cooper, are working on that as well.
Cabinet members should receive a draft ethics policy, focusing on financial disclosures and conflicts of interest, any day now.
We have a state in which lobbyists are a very powerful force, Bredesen said. Thats an understatement. Lobbyists are responsible for most of the legislation that is approved every year. They draft bills, take them to prospective sponsors, line up co-sponsors, testify before legislative committees and then count votes to ensure passage. Sometimes, they all but punch the voting buttons for lawmakers.
I just want you to keep a friendly arms length, Bredesen told his Cabinet.
Speaking of legislators, Bredesen reminded his group that the Legislature is a separate branch of government. Dont let them chase you around the table, he said.
Still, Cabinet members need to get to know legislators. Bredesen noted that he called on Lt. Gov. John Wilder, the Senate speaker, and House Speaker on Tuesday morning, his first official day in office.
Meantime, Bredesen said he wants information from his managers. He wants them to offer ideas that he can absorb, process and use to solve the mammoth problems facing Tennessee.
I dont want to leave problems for the future, he said.